Gorguts – Obscura (1998)
It says much about my origins as a metalhead that the shrill, dissonant, and generally challenging Obscura was one of my ‘gateway’ albums. Either that, or I was a little too obsessed with the idea of “progressive” metal for my own good. Self-deprecation aside, Gorguts started out as a reasonably straight-ahead death metal band, but pushed so far beyond that on Obscura that they had to dial it back a little for this album’s successor in order to keep from going mad. Ultimately, it’s hard to describe the level of experimentation on display here without lapsing into marketspeak.
Probably the most important key to understanding Obscura is understanding that although it’s tonally dissonant and messes around with rhythm a lot, it’s still a rigorously structured recording that plays by an intelligible and decipherable set of rules. For instance, there’s not all that many unique song structures – over time, the album’s 12 tracks tend to sequence dissonance and consonance in the same order, mark off sections with dramatic tempo shifts, and hoarsen Luc Lemay’s grotesque shrieks over time. On the other hand, the freedom of tonality and rhythm means that despite relying on the same instruments and mixing techniques for its entire duration, Obscura‘s tracks are easy to distinguish from one another… although like a lot of albums, the iffier cuts are placed towards the middle and end.
Incidentally, for such a harsh exterior (even for a genre that is, after all, literally called “death metal”), this album’s tracks are defined by their hooks – usually one especially distinct riff or sound, often one of the moments of brief consonance and tonality I mentioned earlier. Gorguts does admittedly have one aesthetic ace up their sleeve in Luc Lemay’s viola parts, which definitely fit with the occasional contemporary classical feel these tracks have going for them. Otherwise, though, having the occasional crowd-pleasing big riff or whatnot is a good way to keep them interested for long enough that the subtler aspects of the music (like the overall organization of the songs) begin to reach them. That may be an overly cynical way of describing it, but in the band’s defense, I do feel that these brief moments of heightened accessibility arise organically in the arrangements. In other words – they don’t feel like they were shoved into the tracks in a misguided attempt to squeeze slightly more record sales out of a niche genre.
Making dissonant music is easy. Doing it in a coherent and logical fashion is obviously harder, but Gorguts mostly pulls it off well. I won’t go as far as to say that each of the twelve tracks on here is indispensable, and the generally challenging nature of this recording does make it difficult to listen to the entire thing in one go. But it’s still a high point of the genre, and a prospective metalhead can learn much about how to apply all the cool musical techniques they’re learning from how Obscura uses its own musical language.
Highlights: “Earthly Love”, “Nostalgia”, “Faceless Ones”